The Rev. Vivian Seegers, head of Urban Aboriginal Ministries in the Diocese of New Westminster, delivered this sermon at the Cathedral in 2019. She often collaborated with The Maundy ministry in order to help people living on the margins get secure access to healthy food and other outreach services.
Vivian Seegers passed away June 2, 2021.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you Oh Lord, Our Rock and Our Redeemer.
Food security on thanksgiving weekend! Urban Aboriginal Ministry has four feasts a year. One is the Annual Thanksgiving Feast. The others are Easter Feast, Christmas Feast and Aboriginal Day Feast. Those four are very important in their own ways; thanksgiving remembers and acknowledges the generosity of our ancestors of this land who welcomed the people who landed here off the boat from far away. They were very hungry after their long voyage over the Pacific Ocean, many with sores from scurvy, some near death from disease. The native people went and gathered all the good healthy food and laid out a banquet for them to give them their strength back and help them heal.
The leper in our reading today is an outcast in society. They were hard to look at. They lived on the outskirts of our communities. They were not welcome in regular society. They lived in isolation. Unable to have a normal life, they would look at people who had relationships and careers and they knew that they would never be a part of that. Lepers were very poor. They lived in filth. They had no resources or energy to take care of themselves or their environment. They were unable to have a normal life. People would cringe from them when they saw them. They were always unclean and had limbs, if they were still attached to their bodies, didn’t work and were full of open sores. And more.
In Urban Aboriginal Ministry we feed people, help people get clothing, help people get housing, as well as supporting people who want to get off the street, helping people to be freed from their addictions. We offer regular Friday events beginning at 10am and going until 2pm. From 10am to 12 noon we will have projects like drum making, regalia making, arts and crafts, programs that strengthen our culture and traditional ways of praying. Another popular project is making bath bombs that help with physical aches and pains and provides a wonderful sense of self-care to be bathed with all the healing scents of the essential oils. We respond to arising community needs in this early morning time. We also offer a light lunch from 12 to 1pm and this is followed with a drumming prayer circle from 1pm to 2pm. Here we drum and sing songs from First Nations traditions over the mountains unless we have a West Coast native person present. We usually don’t sing west coast traditional songs without their presence. They have a different protocol than we do and we are careful not to do anything wrong. We sing Dene, Cree, Mig Maw, Ojibway songs, all the prayer songs that we used before contact. And we are learning. We are reclaiming our culture and discovering the old songs of our ancestors.
During these times I can usually see when food security is a serious matter when the kids come in. Sometimes they will head straight for the kitchen and look for food. You know they need it. They are desperate and they need to eat. And no matter what we have, even if its already laid out for the lunch time, I will take the food and give it to them. When I see their hungry I give them as much as they need to eat. This is usually around the last week before the next welfare cheque comes in. Sometimes they’ll come in and they will head straight for the corner where the toys are or run to greet each other. They are more interested in being together and playing together. That is usually during welfare week when their cupboards are full. Sometimes I will get a call from a couple who is having a fight. They are ready to break up. I will put out a box and start throwing food together and take it over to them. We sit down at their kitchen table and have a talk. They feel better, heard and tended to. The desperation is lessened. The empty cupboards now has food in them and they are sorry that they were short with each other, that they said unkind words to each other. And that day, they are relieved and happy. The children are happy and will go to bed this night knowing that mom and dad are happy too.
We use to have food that was donated to us by a large grocery store and at first there were people of European descent picking up the food and bringing it to us. It was day old bread and vegetables and fruit that didn’t look so nice on the store shelves but was still edible. We were happy to have that resource to share with the families. But then they couldn’t pick it up any longer and we had to send native people to pick it up. Slowly, week after week, the food was no longer the same. It was older, some moldy, and it became embarrassing to pass this food on to those who desperately needed it so we just didn’t go back. There was also a popular coffee place that would give out previously ground coffee, sandwiches, cakes and cookies. And again, after our native people were the ones going to pick it up, it lessened. The first to go was the coffee. Then they stopped the sandwiches. Then we were usually only picking up cookies and cakes. The last time I went to pick up the donations it was all crumbled together, thrown into a garbage bag. We never went back their either.
Native people are treated like lepers in our society all across Canada. People cringe from us. I have heard someone say to me, “I want nothing to do with those disgusting and appalling people.” We are not allowed to go and rent a decent home. We are usually given the smallest rooms in the single room occupancy, the most broken down and damaged, the ones that others won’t take, so that even in the poorest areas like Main and Hastings we are treated with the same marginalization. We have a hard time getting interviews for housing or job. Success in a career search and finding a better place to live is almost impossible. I watched a refugee family getting support from our church and I asked someone how come we can’t do this for a first nations family. There is sort of a cringing again. And the response was that the refugee families have a chance to come here and become part of society and there will be an end to the support that they will need. They will get careers and they are able to contribute to society so it’s not a waste. First Nations people are seen as “always going to be that way” and the need will be never ending.
Before contact, and before the environmental devastation that is going on with all the mining and oil industries, we had plenty of moose, caribou, bear, and fish, so much food available to us. Now because of the arsenic and mercury poisoning of our food source I see us as ecological refugees. We are forced to leave our reserves and rural areas and usually end up in the most poorest parts of the cities and communities in Canada.
With the Care N Share program we will be able to provide more than good fresh food. We will be providing dignity. We can show these families and these individuals who live in these single room occupancies that they are important, that they matter, and that we care. The respect and dignity that they receive when the food is fresh and laid out with real care and concern will allow real gratitude to grow. Here in the Cathedral today we are decorated for thanksgiving season. You can see how much attention was put into it to portray the generosity and abundance that comes from the heart of the people. This is what you can show when the food is not moldy but is beautiful and fresh. Like the leper who saw that this healing was happening as he was walking, all we can do is respond with awe. When I walked into the church this morning I was in awe of what was laid out here. I actually took pictures and will send it to my niece hoping that she can decorate something like it for the Urban Aboriginal Ministry Thanksgiving Feast tomorrow. I don’t think so but we will do the best we can. But the generosity that is brought out is so awesome, so huge, all this leper could do was just stop, turn around, and say loudly, how grateful he was to Jesus.
I am Dene and in our community we usually didn’t say please and thank you. It brought them back to the experience in residential school. Please means we know we are not worthy of receiving what we are asking for and will most likely get into trouble for asking but I’m desperate enough to ask. And thank you means that we didn’t expect to get it because we know you don’t usually give us what we need. And if you don’t say these words you will get hit. And so these are words that we don’t say to each other. We have no words in our language either for please and thank you. But we do have a saying of gratitude. Its “Tha Hu Nah.” And I didn’t say that right. It is said loudly and with joy. “THA HU NAAAHHH!!” It goes louder at the end. What that means is may you live long. You are so generous, you are so kind, so caring that it’s so important for the people that you stay her for a long long time. That you live for a long time and around her for a long time. Tha Hu NaaAH.
The residential school experience has left a legacy of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual poverty. With the support of the Care N Share program we can tend to these various forms of poverty. I can go and visit a young mom who was passed from foster home to foster home as a child who is now trying to provide a home for her own children. And she will see that she is loved. The love that we pour out with unlimited generosity, the love that we have received from God through Jesus, a love that is so abundant and so never ending that we can pour this out to her. Jesus poured out his love day after day after day, right up to his death, and then beyond death. Jesus showed us that there is no death that can overcome love and generosity, the abundance of God. The love and generosity we are now able to share and be healed. We take that and walk with it. When we see that healing, we know how we got it. We know where to get it. And we know to go back to that place, to go back to where he was healed. And like the leper, we go back to those people who need healing, and we share that same healing, loudly. Our actions say loudly, “We praise you God. We praise you for all that you offer us freely.” And the suffering that happens around us?...all they can do is respond in awe. Tha Hu Naahh. All my relations.